Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Welcome To Fango 2008!

Every once in a while when I’m doing my Horror Class, someone asks me why I feel qualified to teach about horror screenwriting. Fair question. When you look at my credits, it’s mostly action and thriller films, with that odd family comedy. But NIGHT HUNTER started out as horror action (until it was stripped of the horror part) and I have written a bunch of horror scripts that didn’t get made (though a couple got really close - and I was once up for a HALLOWEEN sequel). I’m a horror movie fan, and one of my first scripts was about an OMEN homage about a Satanic cult made up of Pacific Gas & Electric executives who brought death and destruction to anyone who opposed their nuclear power plant plans for Point Arena, California. I have been attending the Fangoria weekend Of Horrors for about 15 years, now - and if you ever bought any of the behind the scenes of horror movies video series called THE DEAD BEAT, check the opening credits... I was one of the three principals behind that series.

If you aren’t familiar with Fango - it’s the magazine for horror movie fans, run by Tony Timpone, and every year in Los Angeles (and other major cities) they have a convention where horror movie stars and horror movie makers interact with fans. When I first began going, it was at one of the LAX hotels, then they moved to the Burbank Hilton, and this year they moved to the Los Angeles Convention Center downtown.

Horror movie fans have changed over the years - when I first began going to Fango, it was 95% geek guys and 5% geek gals and wives who didn’t understand. Then, a few years ago, Goth happened... and now probably over a third of the audience are goth gals covered with tattoos wearing really hot outfits. And last year at Burbank there seemed to be more crossover - with mainstream film fans joining the audience. Part of that is due to horror being hot right now - every couple of weeks there is a new horror film in cinemas - and movie stars are often in these films. For a while, there, horror was a ghetto, and the movies starred people mainstream audiences have never heard of.

When they announced that Fango was moving to the Convention Center, my first response was - Where will we drink? Where will we eat? The Convention Center is in a section of downtown surrounded by an area where you don’t want to park your car. For all the talk about rebuilding downtown, there aren’t really any places to eat... and the bars are scary. There are a couple of hotels in walking distance, but on site the only place to eat is the Convention Center cafeteria - where I paid $9.50 for the worst hamburger I have ever eaten in my life... and I can’t figure out how you can screw up a hamburger. My friend Regent bought a salad he said tasted weird - chemically - so they are able to screw up salads as well as burgers. The 99 cent burger at Carl’s Jr is a million times better than that $10 Convention Center burger...

But I’m getting ahead of myself....

The reason for Fango going to the Convention Center - last year they had to turn people away at Burbank. It was crowded. To get your ticket, you had to stand outside in the heat for hours in a line that stretched around the hotel. Once inside - you might have to stand in back to hear Guellermo del Toro talk - and the dealer’s room was really a whole bunch of rooms... a main room and a half dozen smaller rooms. The show needed more room. But when I arrived on Friday, there was no real line for tickets - maybe a dozen people compared to the hundreds last year. Strange.

Events like this used to have the weekend pass and the day pass, but now they have Gold Passes (first five rows for all panels and free autographs) and Silver Passes (next ten rows and something) and Preferred Pass (next five rows) and then the weekend and day passes... so the Weekend Pass isn’t on a lanyard anymore, it’s a wrist band like the day passes... but you wear it for all 3 days. Meaning - you shower with it. This is not convenient. In fact, it’s kinda gross.

So I wander into the auditorium for the opening ceremony - and it’s empty. It looks *really* empty, because it’s so big, and because there are only a couple dozen people in the first 20 rows. You’re sitting in row 21, and there are hundreds of seats in front of you that you are not allowed to sit in. Maybe it will fill up on Saturday?

They show a bunch of trailers - including Indiana Jones and Ironman and some other non-horror films that appeal to the horror crowd... then the trailers change to low budget horror films that you’ve never heard of. I open up my program to see who the guests are this year... and wonder if I’ve been given a program from 15 years ago by mistake. Okay, there’s Clive Barker - he’s there every year. And Reggie Bannister from PHANTASM. And David Naughton from AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON. And the cast of the original NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD. And Tony Todd from CANDYMAN. And Angus Scrimm from PHANTASM. And Gunnar Hanson from the original TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE. And... well, a bunch of other people from the past. Plus a bunch of panels from low low budget horror movies (some backyard productions) and the crew from FEAST to talk about 2&3 and “The Girls Of Moonlight” and... well, no one from a studio horror film. No panels from a single film with a budget over $2 million. What the heck is going on here?

So on Saturday and Sunday - all of those front rows were still mostly empty. And no one thought it might be a good idea to get rid of some of the empty Gold & Silver & Premium rows so that they place didn’t look like a ghost town, and those of us who had paid the standard $60 to get in weren’t so far back that we needed binoculars.

They always have a screening room at Fango, that shows a mix of “classic” horror film from the 80s and new films getting a sneak (not uncommon for someone like Frank Darabont to bring his new movie and the Fango crowd gets to see it before anyone else)... that was upstairs at the Convention Center... and the escalator was not on. Took until Sunday afternoon before someone switched it on! So you had to climb the stairs to get to the screening room... which was about the size of the last screen in that multiplex in BACHELOR PARTY. Okay, maybe not that small - but about 30-50 seats. That ended up not really being an issue for two reasons - nobody came to Fango this year, and the movies they were showing were all low low budget crap. The only “classic” film was THE DEAD PIT (most of you have never heard of this film) - which was made on a very very low budget in the Bay Area with my late friend Curt Wells on the FX crew. It was direct to video. Not quite in the same league as the usual “classic” films they’ve shown in the past.

I ventured into the Dealer’s Room, which was where the action was - instead of a main room and satellite rooms you may never even know exist, one big room. The good news for dealers was that they were all more or less equal (though David Naughton had an autograph table in the very back of the room facing the wall - most people probably never got back that far) it also exposed the number of tables for single films - movies made in someone’s backyard that they were selling on DVD at Fango. And this year there seemed to be a new type of dealer - people selling sex. There were pin up calenders and photos and even a T shirt place had a stripper pole and dancers to help advertize their wares. Usually Fango is kind of a family friendly event - even though there are companies selling crawling severed arms and scary masks and props from horror films, the “tween” kids are a big part of the horror movie audience. I was into horror movies as a 13 year old boy. I think part of the reason for this is that kids at that fragile age feel stronger if they can conquer and control their fears, and horror movies allow them to do this. But this year the dealer’s room was filled with strippers and girls with their asses hanging out - and lots and lots of boobs in tiny tiny bikini tops. Now, these things probably also interest 13 year old boys (they interested me at 13), but not with mom & dad standing next to them. And mom & dad don’t really want their kids to see this stuff. I kept thinking that in the old venue, they could have had a PG-13 main dealer’s room with some R rated satellite rooms. Here, you couldn’t avoid the asses hanging out. Even for boys older than 13, it was, um, distracting.

The first row of the dealer’s room was supposed to be the prime real estate... but the traffic tended to flow forward, down the center aisle. So you had to remember to go back and look at the 8 Films To Die For booth and the Anchor Bay booth. Studios - not here this year!

The only thing crowded was the literature table - which was way too small for all of the junk on it. Usually there are give away mini posters and post cards for all kinds of films and services... but this year the table was half the size with twice the junk. Lots of xeroxed movie posters and fliers, and post cards for websites for films that don’t exist... yet. One of the days there was an avalanche of junk, and mini posters and postcards flowed onto the floor. Swell!

On Saturday night we all walked down to the Holiday Inn’s bar and had several drinks. For no apparent reason, actress Tiffany Shepis (NIGHTMARE MAN) sat on my lap at one point. We’re friends, but any time a hot actress sits on my lap is worth mentioning. A fist fight broke out in the bar, and the hotel’s security guy stepped in to break it up... which resulted in the security guard fighting one of the guys... and they fought through the lobby to the elevator banks... and when one elevator door opened, the guy knocked the security guard into the elevator... and then moved in to continue the fight... then the elevator doors closed over them. I kept watching the elevators for one or the other to come down, but when the elevators doors opened, other guests exited. Obviously the two were fighting on some floor up there. Maybe a half hour later, the elevator doors opened and the messed up security guard stepped out. This was like something out of a movie.

Most of the rest of the event was kind of dull, the high points being a panel with Joe Dante and Robert Picardo (from THE HOWLING and many other movies that are favs of mine... even though Joe hasn’t done a feature since 2003's LOONEY TUNES movie) and George Romero and the cast & crew of the original NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD - lots of great behind the scenes stories, including that Duane Jones (Ben) hadn’t been written as African American, he was just the best actor they auditioned... and when Martin Luther King, jr was assassinated they realized that life had mirrored the end of their film... making it more topical than they had intended (the Viet Nam War was always part of the film’s background). These were the highpoints of the 3 days.

So they have this big venue, and nada. Why not have side-bar classes on writing horror and directing horror and make up and FX stuff? There was room for it. I have volunteered to Tony to do my horror class for free every year. Since they had the trailers for Indiana Jones and those other big films with cross-over, why not have a guest speaker or panel from those to bring in a larger crowd? I’ll bet you could get the screenwriter of the new Indiana Jones movie to speak (no one ever asks screenwriters to do anything, and I’ve seen David Koepp speak at other events) and we’re in the publicity push for IRONMAN, so someone could have shown up from that. Why not try to bring in the mainstream audience with big summer tentpole movies... and treat them to the world of horror flicks?

Why not show better movies in the screening room? A couple of years ago someone passed my zombie script to a low budget producer who called me, wanting to buy it... but he was making films for pocket change, and offered me even less than he should have (so I turned it down)... then made a zombie film that seemed *very* similar to mine called EVILUTION. So I figured I’d watch it and see if it was worth suing his @ss over... but after 20 minutes I left the screening room *screaming*!

It was that bad.

The scene where the gang members introduce themselves to the lead in a stilted exposition dump that seemed more like reading character bios from the casting notice than conversation is an example of this film's *terrible* writing.

Suing them would be an insult to my script.

I’m really not sure the idea of *anyone* being able to make a movie is a good thing. I mean, in theory it’s great that anyone can just make a movie... but shouldn’t they try to learn how first? This was a terrible script, terrible acting, terrible direction. Guess what? You can learn how to do all of those things - I have a website where you can learn about screenwriting for *free* and there are places to learn about directing and acting and how to deal with actors. Why not do some plays with community theater to get a handle on how actors think? Why not prepare *before* you make the film? And why don't producers who have no idea what good writing is, *stop rewriting scripts*? I've said this before, but there are lots of low budget producers in this biz who can take a script that might have sold for $500k and turn it into a movie that isn't even worth half that.

One of the strange things about this Fango was that it seemed incestuous - horror movies made by fans for fans seems like a good idea, but it seemed like they were rejecting the studio films completely... which leads to a program of low budget stuff that seems like it was cobbled from pieces of other movies. There was a comedy film they showed clips from that starred all of the people from 80s horror movies doing in-jokes that only fans of 80s horror films would get. This *limits* the audience. Why not try to expand the audience?

Maybe next year they’ll figure it out...

- Bill.

TODAY'S SCRIPT TIP: How You Tell The Story
Yesterday’s Dinner: Tomato-Beef at City Wok in Studio City.

Movies: I'll talk about them in the next post.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Juicy Scenes & Pacing

More Answers to past questions. These three were related, so I'm answering them all in the same entry...

QUESTION: Any, er tricks, to build up suspense? Is there a rule of thumb to balance the frequency of the comic relief of the approach of an ominous shadow that turns out to be a kitty with the slightly less frequent surprise slice that reduces the band of kids by one nasty jock in that uniquely gruesome method and, oh by the way, is there anyplace in a screenplay for run on sentences as I seem to have a problem with that too.

ANSWER: I hate those people who say “for the answer to that question, read my book!” There are these guys who teach classes at Expo who are basically there just to pimp their classes or books... But there are two huge chapters in the (still out of print) action book, and one entire CD of the thriller set is all about suspense... way too much information for a quick answer here.

Suspense is the anticipation of an action - so we need to know what the action is, then use one of many techniques to stretch out the anticipation of that event... without allowing the audience to forget the event.

Horror also uses dread (covered on the horror CD) which is the anticipation of an unspecific event. We know that there is a killer outside, but don’t know which door or window they will attack through... and now you stretch out the anticipation without allowing the audience to forget the killer or monster or ghost or whatever.

This is done on the page - a suspense script needs the suspense to work for the reader, a horror script needs the fear to work for the reader. We are trying to use our writing to create the emotions. Not *tell* people what the emotions are, but write a scene or sequence that is filled with those emotions.

Some suspense and dread is situational - we create the situation. Other times we use writing techniques to build the suspense or dread. Often we use both.

As for run on sentences - um, maybe in dialogue if that fits the character? Otherwise, you need to edit. Run on sentences usually make it look like you don’t really know where you are going... they look weak. You want to look strong.

QUESTION: How to increase the tension and how to adjust the pacing properly?

ANSWER: I have a script tip on pacing - it’s the heartbeat of your screenplay. You want to have a regular heartbeat - usually a “juice scene” within every ten pages or so... and more frequently in act 3.

The number of heart beats in your script is critical to your story's survival. It's impossible to have a regular heart beat in your story if you only have four heart beats in 110 pages. That heart is beating so slow the patient is either comatose or dead. The main reason why scripts re slow paced is that not enough exciting stuff is happening. You're going to need about one exciting scene about every ten pages - really funny scenes in a comedy, suspense scenes in a thriller, big dramatic scenes in a drama, action scenes in an action flick. Whatever the “juice” of that particular genre is.

Your heart rests between beats, which is why films that are all exciting scenes with nothing in between seem to burn out. Too much of a good thing. A script needs balance. Peaks and valleys. If your script is always exciting, we'll become used to the excitement and it will become expected... and boring. When car chases and shoot outs become boring, you're in real trouble!

All heart beat is as much a problem as no heart beat at all. But here’s what I learned from watching *Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein* - one genre’s valley is another genre’s peak. By combining two genres - horror and comedy - *Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein* is twice as exciting with no heart beat burn out. The valleys in horror are peaks in comedy. When you aren’t screaming, you’re laughing. The comedy makes the horror twice as scary, and the horror makes the comedy twice as funny. So don’t think of your valleys as “dull parts” or “slow spots”, think of them as exciting parts in another genre. Your thriller may use the valleys as peaks in the dramatic story. Your comedy valleys may be romantic peaks. Every page of your script should be exciting... you don’t to give the audience any time to race to the bathroom. Bust those bladders!

QUESTION: How to get the most 'juice' out of the scenes as you're fond of say?

ANSWER: First, know what juice you want. The juice is the emotions in the scene - and the emotions you want the audience to feel. The scene is going to transfer the emotions to the audience... and we’re going to start with the person the reads our script. We want them to feel something, not just read the script like it’s a work assignment or a report.

Second, we want to create the situation that best produces those emotions. In FORGETTING SARAH MARSHALL the lead character, Pete, has broken up with his long time love Sarah. He decides to go away, to a Hawaii resort, to ret and forget her... except that’s where she and her new boyfriend are staying. The other thing about Sarah is that she’s the star of a hot TV show, so Pete can’t turn on TV without seeing her - he can’t escape her!

This is a “cringe comedy” where the humor comes from embarrassing and awkward situations.

So we have a scene in Hawaii where we’re going to milk humor *and* emotions from Pete feeling lonely. He goes to a restaurant at the resort alone, and the host ask “Table for two?” When Pete says no, the host continues - No wife? No girlfriend? No business associates? No buddies? This milks the situation for the most juice... and it keeps going! The host asks if he’d like a magazine or newspaper, because just sitting alone is going to be boring. Once he sits alone at his table, a big deal is made of taking away the other place setting.

Now he’s alone at a table... but not in any restaurant, this is Hawaii. So Pete is surrounded by couples on honeymoon who are all over each other, and guys who have brought their girlfriends so that they can pop the question - and lonely Pete is surrounded by newlyweds and happy couples getting engaged. This also milks the situation to create more humor - each one of these things increases the juice or a juicy situation.

Then, to top it off, Sarah and her new boyfriend enter the restaurant and are seated at the table that Pete’s table overlooks - so he has to watch them while he eats. So we begin with a situation designed to create the kind of cringe comedy that is the juice for this film, then - to keep it juicy - small things within the scene *keep happening* - and escalating until we reach the breaking point.

Okay, that’s a cringe comedy example - but imagine the scene has our lead characters stuck in a house surrounded by zombies, or chased by a serial killer through an abandoned slaughterhouse, or the hero trying to escape the police by walking along a narrow ledge. Those are the basic situations, then we need to find a bunch of things to keep it juicy - things within that scene to keep the situation escalating.

And these things need to be on the page - we need to write them in such a way that the reader *feels* the emotions while they read it. Our job is to use words to create emotions in the reader... and eventually the audience.

- Bill

See You At Fango! - I'll be at the Fangoria Weekend Of Horrors at the LA Convention Center this weekend, if you see me walking down the halls, say hello!

TODAY'S SCRIPT TIP: Two Wrongs - Dilemmas
Yesterday’s Dinner: Pork fried rice at City Wok in Studio City.

Movies: STREET KINGS - People often see a movie and wonder how the hell *that* script got made instead of their brilliant screenplay? Now, most of the time the answer is that the script may have begun life even more brilliant than your screenplay, but went through the giant meat grinder of development and came out as crap. But what about a script with a non-high concept idea? Why buy a script with a bland idea in the first place? Well, the reason is usually the source material - it’s based on a hot novel or stage play or article or maybe it was written by some famous writer that the studios want to keep happy by making their dream script... even though it’s a box office nightmare.

Let me start out by saying that I am a fan of James Ellroy, I’ve read most of his books and have a stack of autographed books - which required that I stand in line at some book store for hours. But Ellroy is an acquired taste - his stories are convoluted, scatter-shot, unfocused, dense, all-over-the-place, and frequently seem like he’s making them up as he goes along. Having met the guy and had a few brief conversations with him when he was signing books, he seems as if he may have ADD or something - he’s got a ton of energy, he’s smart as hell, and he just kind of erupts like a volcano. His books are kind of the same - and every time someone tries to adapt one for the screen, they usually fail miserably. The exception being LA CONFIDENTIAL, which STREET KINGS’ story liberally steals from. Ellroy is one of those writers that you love, warts and all. And Ellroy fans are *rabid* fans - we’re kind of a cult. So when James Ellroy writes his first original screenplay, someone is going to buy it and make it, even if the story doesn’t make much sense. And every star in Hollywood who is a fan of Ellroy’s will be standing in line to play a part.

So STREET KINGS (which was originally called THE WATCHMEN) has an all star cast, headed up be Keanu Reeves as a cop very similar to Russell Crowe’s character in LA CONFIDENTIAL with Forest Whitaker as his boss, similar to James Cromwell. Oh, and Chris Evans is kind of like Guy Pearce. Anyway - Keanu is a cop who knows how to plant evidence against bad guys who are smart enough not to leave any evidence, and isn’t above killing a whole bunch of bad guys who *would have* killed him, had they been armed. It’s a good role for Keanu, because he can seem vacuous and it works - he’s like a big dumb attack dog... but he uses those puppy dog eyes of his to show that he may not be completely at ease with killing people, even if they do deserve it. Add to that the minis of vodka he chugs every few minutes and that dead wife in his past and you have a cliche cop on the edge. I always joke that Keanu is the luckiest man in Hollywood - he stars in all kinds of hit films and even some great ones like RIVER’S EDGE and MY OWN PRIVATE IDAHO... but he’s really just like any other star - he has a type of character that he plays really well, and crashes and burns in roles that aren’t in his comfort zone. So he does a great job here - as do all of the others - including Jay Mohr as the straight-arrow cop who keeps confronting Keanu.

Story has Keanu’s ex-partner, whom he hates, murdered moments before Keanu was going to beat him up. Keanu is left at the crime scene with the guy he has publically said he wants to kill... dead. When evidence pops up that his ex-partner might have been dirty, Keanu is told by his boss, Whitaker, to just let it go. But Internal Affairs guy Hugh Laurie thinks Keanu might have killed his partner, so to clear his name he has to find the killer... which exposes all kinds of police corruption and all kinds of twisted plots and all kinds of side tracks and subplots and story threads that seem almost random, and eventually gets us to the real killer... and if you’ve seen LA CONFIDENTIAL, you know who that is.

Problem is, with so much going on there isn’t much time for anything - and we get sketches and cliches as far as characters are concerned. And we’re never really let inside Keanu’s character - we are kept at a distance. The story is pretty much third person - observing the characters instead of allowing us to understand them. The film ends up being cold and emotional... and has no *moments* - even the big end scene where Keanu finally catches up with the guy who killed his partner... and it’s just kind of flat. No emotions, basically a scene like any other scene. Bland.

One of the things that had me wondering in this film: it’s a movie about corrupt Los Angeles cops - and every cop in the film breaks the law and many murder and steal and do awful things.... and the film was shot in Los Angeles! You know, when they film in Los Angeles, and they close down streets - Los Angeles police provide set security and close the streets. So how tough is it to obtain police help in a film that makes police look like scum bags? This old cop script I’ve been accidentally rewriting since seeing this film is about a few corrupt cops, and originally took place in Any City. USA... but my rewrite takes place in San Francisco... and uses some elements of an actual police corruption case that took place there. As I do the rewrite, I keep wondering how tough it’s going to be to shoot this in San Francisco? I guess I’ll finish the rewrite, sell the script, and find out.

Pages: Met with the director on the script I wrote last month, and have some notes to figure out - most are easy, there are a couple that are production oriented that will require a bit of work. But we're making the same movie - which is great. I also did a few more pages on that cop script rewrite I had no plan on rewriting. I need to get back to the rewrite I'm *supposed to be* working on.

- Bill

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Score Card For Mid-April


Monster movie assignment script - finished, delivered, and preparing for notes and rewrites. Shoots in a couple of months.

Family script from my treatment - dead... but the director likes it and wants to know if he can try to set it up elsewhere. Sure, why not? Odd Update: Seems it ain't quite dead! Someone else at the same company read it, loved it, and passed it over to production... so it still may happen.

That action project I tried to convert into an assignment - probably dead. No money, no contract... and the Producer doesn’t seem to be interested enough to call or e-mail and ask what’s going on.

Art house assignment - weird story idea from the producer, we’re still talking about it. May go next month.

Two specs that had traveled up the development chain... died. In one case, they thought it opened slow, in the other I have no idea what happened. Note to self: Always open script with naked women and explosions, no matter what the genre.

Next up - hopefully I finally get around to revising the damned book. Plus, some other specs are out there being read by folks. Who knows what will happen.

And, there's a mystery project I'm keeping hush-hush: It will either completely change my career... or may just be a lot of nothing.


TODAY'S SCRIPT TIP: How Stories Unfold
Yesterday’s Dinner: Pizza in Burbank.

Movies: SUPERHERO MOVIE - Needed to be 17% funnier. (just joking Craig)

Made single-handedly by Craig Mazin over at Artful Writer. He wrote, directed, produced, and plays a janitor. Of course, that doesn’t stop the end credit roll from being about 25 minutes of a 85 minute movie. You may think I’m joking, but this is the shortest movie with the longest end credit crawl I have ever seen. Of course, there are out takes in the end credits. Not just a couple of minutes of flubs, but whole scenes - some with stars that aren’t in the main body of the film! There may be a good 20 minutes of scenes! And most are pretty good - the whole scene with Woolverine having problems wiping his butt and Toilet Paper Hand Man coming to the “rescue” was just as funny as anything else in the movie.

And that gives you an idea of the type and level of humor in this film. Mostly a parody of SPIDER-MAN, with nerdy Rick Riker living with his aunt (Marion Ross) and uncle (Leslie Neilsen) after his parents (Robert Hays - great to see him in a ZAZ movie again! and Nicole Sullivan) are murdered (in a flashback from BATMAN BEGINS). Pretty much, scene-for-scene we get the SPIDER-MAN story, though this time it’s a dragonfly.

Rick keeps bumping into other superheroes from other movies, and here’s where the film could have been 17% funnier. Instead of some parody of the superhero, we get the actual superhero (played by some other actor) and some gag. So the Human Torch from Fantastic 4 catches fire and can’t put himself out... but they could have done that gag *and* found a funny variation on the Human Torch character. Storm is just Storm. Professor Xavier works well because he’s *not* the comic book character - he’s Tracy Morgan with no shortage of attitude and a wife (parody movie regular Regina Hall) who seems like she just stepped out of a Tyler Perry movie... oh, and she’s sure he’s been sleeping with Invisible Girl (Pamela Anderson - who, it must be noted, has unrealistically large breasts). They have a half dozen little bald kids in wheelchairs with super powers. These are funny things to do with the superhero characters - and I wish they’d done more with the actual superheroes they used (what if Human Torch was Gay?) or made them parody characters *like* actual superheroes, but with slightly different powers or personalities.

The plot is also too normal - I mean, Lex Luthor in the first SUPERMAN movie had a funnier evil plan! And when you add all of those old TV series like CAPTAIN NICE and MR. TERRIFIC, which had silly plots like bridges made of oatmeal and lines like Alice Ghostly’s response to her son admitting he does something that birds do, “Should I spread newspaper on the floor?” (NICE was from the creative team that gave us GET SMART, including Buck Henry!). Those shows had *funny* plots. SUPERGEO MOVIE has a villain who must kill one a day to stay alive.

SUPERHERO MOVIE has no shortage of fart jokes. In fact, every fart joke was used in the movie - there are none in the 20 minutes (or whatever) of closing credit materials. Marion Ross gets the majority of flatulence... and she’s combustible for an entire scene. When the odor gets so bad that our hero brings out a scented candle so his girlfriend can breathe, we can see the joke coming from a mile away... and that’s okay! It builds up suspense and anticipation. This probably adds a few laughs before the blue flame shoots across the room.

And, with that folks, I think I’m going to draw this review to a close. Funny if you like that kind of stuff (um, I do) and much better than most of the BLANK MOVIEs (the non-Zucker ones). Oh, and they recycle that ejector chair gag from, I think, the second NAKED GUN movie. And one guy did all of it.

- Bill

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Magic Time

So, the assignment was turned in last week, and they’ve read it and like it. There’s always a certain amount of writer’s paranoia that has me worried they will drive over to my place, light the script on fire and leave it on my porch, hit the doorbell, then drive away. *I* like the script, but you never know if anyone else will. You hope they will.

Because I have a deadline, and must be able to plan out my writing so that I have a finished screenplay on time, I use an outline. I usually outline, but I’ve done a couple of experiments working without an outline... which usually serves to remind me why I need an outline. Some people think that an outline handcuffs you, but I think it frees me. I know where the story is going, I know what has to happen... but I don’t know exactly how it happens. And sometimes that means there’s some sort of magic that happens while you’re writing a scene, and the scene is exciting and entertaining to write.

Here’s an example: The script is a fun monster movie, similar to TREMORS. There’s a sequence I called the Tides Restaurant Scene (from THE BIRDS) where the monster chases a bunch of folks into a building, where they discuss where the monster came from and how the heck they’re gonna deal with it... while the monster tries to break in to eat them. Sort of a town meeting during an attack. That’s basically what I had in my outline - I knew key story points and all of the things that I was setting up for later... but I didn’t know the *how it happened*.

While writing the scene, I came up with all kinds of funny bits that entertained me as I wrote the sequence, and then I came to the halfway point, where the monster would break in and eat some people, which forces our folks to stop talking about where this monster may have come from and figure out how they’re gonna kill it. When the people run into the building to take cover from the monster, they reinforce the doors and windows, making them “monster proof”. But the monster breaks in, destroys the reinforcements, grabs a couple of people and goes outside to chow down. Our hero realizes they have nothing to reinforce the doors with - they will have to hold them closed themselves. He asks for volunteers, and one guy says he’s crazy, the monster is right out there, it’s going to break in again, and he doesn’t want to be anywhere near the doors when that happens. They hero makes the big speech (fun to write) and then...

Well, magic happened.

One of the townspeople got up, walked to the doors, and used their body to hold them closed... then another person got up, and another, and another, and another... until *everyone* was against the doors, holding them closed as a group, except the naysayer. Who didn’t want to be left out, so he joins all of the others.

Okay, this was a scene where they find something else to reinforce the doors to keep the monster out in the outline... and that’s what happens. But I think this is going to be one of those “I am Spartacus” moments. One of those amazing big moments that make the audience emotional. And it just happened by magic - I created it as I was writing the script, because *something* needed to reinforce those doors. Oh, and it’s thematic, because the story is about how all species need each other to survive (the monster was created by fooling with mother nature). Look, this is a silly monster movie... no one is going to give it 4 stars, it won’t make critic’s lists... critics won’t even know it exists. It’s just a silly movie. But I still want it to be emotional, and funny, and scary and something that you watch and don’t thing was a total waste of your time (only a partial waste). So I need scenes like that. And even with an outline, even knowing what happens next and who gets eaten before the final credits, there’s still room for lightning to strike - still room for that magic to happen on the page. I live for scenes like that - the ones that come from nowhere and have me tearing up as I type them. I live for those funny lines that come right off the top of my head. I live for that one thing you invent in the fly that turns a bunch of words into a living, breathing *person*.

That’s the magic. We take a bunch of words, and turn them into emotions.

That’s what I love about writing.

- Bill

Yesterday’s Dinner: Burrito at Tortas in Studio City.

Movies: LEATHERHEADS - George Clooney needs to think more about focus... not the camera, but the story. You can’t do everything in one film, you have to make decisions. You can’t please everyone, and though Ricky Nelson is right that you have to please yourself, it’s also nice to please some segment of the paying public while you’re at it. The problem with making a movie that tries to please everyone is that it usually pleases no one... and LEATHERHEADS suffers from trying to be all things to all men and women and ending up being nothing.

The film tries to be every single kind of 1940s comedy in one film: a Howard Hawks screwball comedy, a prat-fall physical comedy that seems Keystone Coppish, a Preston Sturges style ironic comedy, and a half dozen other styles and tones... all at the same time. Plus, it’s a newspaper story and a romance and a football story and a war hero movie and another half dozen subjects all crammed into one film. They may have been able to pick two types of comedy and two types of story and come out with a film that works, but we end up with everything but the kitchen sink.

There are some laughs, but it doesn’t add up to anything... so the laughs don’t build,

George Clooney is a pro football player when teams played in cow pastures and were sponsored by small businesses, the way they sponsor little league teams today. They have one football, and if anything happens to it - the game is over. When the team’s sponsor pulls out, everyone goes back to their day job except Clooney - he has never done anything but play football. When he finds out that *thousands* of people go to Princeton football games every week to see Carter Rutherford (John Krasinski) play, he decides to find some way to get the college kid to play on their team. Meanwhile, in another plot, Rene Zellweger is a saucy reporter who is given the assignment to expose a war hero (Krasinski) who is cashing in on his fame, is really a fraud. Oh, wait, they’re the same guy. And he has a shady agent, played by Jonathan Pryce... even though he’s a college player and there really isn’t any such thing as pro football at this point... so why does he need an agent? Anyway, when Clooney makes them an offer to go pro, pro football is kind of born. Zellweger now covers the birth of pro football, as she also tries to expose Krasinski as a fraud... and this leads to a love triangle, and hijinks ensue.

I think they should have just gotten rid of the whole fake war hero thing and focused on football. Had Zellweger given the assignment to cover Krasinksi due to his product endorsements (which don’t get much time in the film, yet are a major part of the world of emerging pro football). By removing the whole war hero thing, we could spend more time on football - instead of *talk* about how pro football has all of these fun, colorful plays, we could *see* them. We get a Statue Of Liberty, but I want to know what the Crusty Bob is. When Krasinski first joins the team, there’s a ten second discussion about the difference between college plays and pro football plays... but it would have been nice to see them try some college plays in the pro world. Since an important part of the story seems to be the difference between the structured world of college ball vs. the unstructured world of pro ball... and how that changes when pro becomes “legitimate”... it would be nice to see more of that on film.

It would have been nice to see more of the guy’s day jobs, and more personality and character for the other guys - they don’t have much screen time right now. And they miss some great moments - when Clooney tries to sign up for unemployment, they ask what skills he has and what jobs he’s had... and that’s the end of the scene. They could have had him say he’s been playing pro football for the past 20 years, “You can’t make a living playing football”, and Clooney responds that is why he’s here. And find some other ways for Clooney to show his love for the game - which we really don’t get in the film.

Though Rene Zellweger is great at banter, she wears an expression of serious constipation throughout the film.

There are some laughs here and there, but I also wonder if a story this muddled and difficult to describe is the best choice for a period film - where the average audience member may not identify with the time period... and the cost of recreating that time period makes the film somewhat expensive to make. A straightforward romantic comedy against the background of the birth of pro football would have been less confusing and maybe appealed to a larger audience... and that's where most of the laughs come from, anyway.

Pages: Working on an article for Script.

Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Bank Fears Cool Confidence

"Bank Fears Cool Confidence"

I saw that headline in the business section of the paper and it confused me. Why would anyone fear cool confidence? I mean, Steve McQueen is all about his cool confidence. That’s why he was a star - he had that strength that didn’t require any machismo. McQueen could just stroll into a room, and without saying a word, you knew he was in control... and you were in trouble. And maybe that’s what the banks fear? I mean, McQueen starred in a couple of movies where he played a bank robber...

But if you are going to fear anything, wouldn’t it be the gun or the threat of violence? Why would you fear the cool confidence? Of all the possible things to fear in a bank robber, his attitude seems like it would be close to the bottom of the list of fears. Why didn’t the headline read, “Bank Fears Psychos With Guns”?

You know, Hollywood isn’t really the town for cool confidence. An actor that can project that attitude is great, but this is pretty much a town of braggarts and bullshit. If you take two screenwriters, one who has that cool confidence because they *know* they are talented and *know* they’ve had some success, and the other one is some loud hyper dude telling every one what an amazing writer they are... the odds are the loud hyper dude is believed as successful and the cool guy isn’t even noticed. Producers and studio execs are more likely to believe the hype than look for the reality. Maybe it’s a take one to be fooled by one thing, I don’t know. I do know a few writers who have PR people... and everyone seems to believe the PR... even though their scripts suck. In fact, that’s funny - they usually still believe the PR after they’ve seen the reality.

This town was built on bullshit. Bullshit is *expected*. I think everyone automatically reduces everything you say by 75%, to account for the bullshit factor... and that’s a problem for those of us with cool confidence. We don’t say much, we don’t brag, and if we do mention our accomplishments, we tend to downplay them. So after they deduct the 75% they think is bullshit, we may be left with nothing.

Clint Eastwood has that cool confidence, too - and he’s played bank robbers before...

So, maybe the banks know something that Hollywood doesn’t. Maybe the banks know that the guy who brags isn’t as dangerous as the guy with cool confidence? Maybe that’s something Hollywood *needs* to learn? I mean, they give some dude $100 million to make a movie because he *says* he’s talented, but maybe they’d be better served by skipping the bullshit and looking at what the guy does - is he really talented? Or is it all PR?

So, after thinking about cool confidence, and wondering why banks fear it so much, I re-read the headline and figured out they meant to accent different syllables. It’s not that Banks Fear Cool Confidence, it’s that confidence has been cooled due to fears about banks. To quote Emily Litella: "Oh... Well, never mind."

- Bill

TODAY'S SCRIPT TIP: Three Act Structure Made Easy
Yesterday’s Dinner: Fallafel at Fallafel King in Westwood.

Movies: Two zombie movies and LEATHERHEADS - will report on all of them later.

Sunday, April 06, 2008

Chuckles Heston - RIP

I met Charlton Heston back when they did the re-release of TOUCH OF EVIL, interviewed him for my article on the restoration of the film. It was a strange experience - he was an old man. He looked old. He acted old. Completely different than the Heston I grew up watching on screen in cheesy movies and Biblical epics. As a kid, I saw him in EXODUS and BEN HUR and other big films that played on TV on holidays. When you’re a kid who is a complete introvert and loves movies, Holidays are often a mine field of relatives you see once or twice a year, plus the rest of the family, and it gets boring fast. But, if part of the holidays might include some big Biblical film where Heston races chariots and women wear filmy clinging clothes... well, that can turn a boring evening with relatives into something exciting. And Heston was the strong, powerful, take no BS hero in all of these films. I never really thought Jewish leader Moses was a kick-ass tough guy until I saw Heston play him.... he didn’t seem like that in Sunday school lessons.

A little later, Heston became the first Ah-nuld - playing the macho bad-ass heroes in sc-fi films. “Get your stinking paws off me you damned dirty ape!” PLANET OF THE APES was one of my favorite movies - saw it on TV as a kid and the twist end blew my mind. And Moses sure could kick monkey butt! After that Heston kicked butt in SOYLENT GREEN and OMEGA MAN and other cool films from my childhood. He also starred in another of my favorite films from childhood - THE NAKED JUNGLE (about an army of fire ants... coming right at us!). He made all kinds of great films, or, at least entertaining ones. He was also in two great western films, MAJOR DUNDEE and WILL PENNY. And who could forget him as the macho lady’s man football player in NUMBER ONE and the pilot in AIRPORT 75 (my favorite in the series) and the cop in TWO MINUTE WARNING?

But Heston turned into a grumpy old man - NRA President and right wing politics. That stuff was always there - it’s part of his tough-but-religious characters. I didn’t agree with his politics, but it was cool to see him and Ah-nuld in TRUE LIES.

So, when I was preparing to interview him, I came up with some hard ball gun questions about hunting weapons and self defense weapons and MAC-10s and other machine guns... but when I sat down at the table with him, he was somebody’s great grandfather *and* that actor who had been in so many films from my childhood. A nice guy, trying to find the best answers to questions about a film he made as a fairly young man - TOUCH OF EVIL. Who could remember back that far? Yet he tried to give complete answers and come up with interesting stories about the film. Instead of hardball questions, I told him how much I loved NAKED JUNGLE as a kid. You always worry that when you say you were a kid when you saw it on some Saturday afternoon TV showing decades after it was new you’re going to make him feel old. But he thanked me, and then it was the next reporter’s turn.

In retrospect, I think Heston was an underrated actor. He did all kinds of movies, all kinds of characters, and even if they did all look and sound like Heston (in TOUCH OF EVIL he played a Mexican police detective... who sounded just like Heston and looked like Heston after a tanning booth accident), he gave every role a feeling of strength and determination. He made Moses into an action hero. What other actor could have done that?

No one will ever be able to replace Charlton Heston - he will be missed.

- Bill

Wednesday, April 02, 2008

Philippe De Broca

One of my favorite directors. Died in 2004... last film directed in 2004.

You know how Madonna doesn't need a last name? There was probably a ten year period where De Broca was famous enough in the USA that he didn't need a first name. Trailers just said "DeBroca" and that was enough.

I probably first heard his name from my parents - and we aren't talking about people who saw movies in art houses while wearing black berets and reading Camus, here. My parents are normal people. They saw normal movies. De Broca made a film in the mid-60s called THAT MAN FROM RIO - a funny spy film - that was a huge hit in the USA. I don't mean an arthouse hit, I mean a mainstream hit. It was a funny James Bond kind of thing when those films were really popular - a globe hopping adventure story. So, when it was on NBC Monday Night At The Movies (or whatever) they watched it. And I watched it... and it's my kind of movie. (When was the last time a dubbed foreign language movie played on network TV?)

So it was one of my favorite movies on TV, and some of his other movies were also on TV (he was a famous director back then) and eventually I saw one of his films, Le MAGNIFIQUE, on my own in a cinema... And became a huge fan all over again. MAGNIFIQUE is about a writer of spy novels who ends up involved in a real life spy story... but, he's just a writer! Now, all of the kinds of things he creates for fiction he must live as fact in order to survive.

Though this film wasn't a huge hit like THAT MAN, it didn't only play in big cities... it played in my home town. Maybe a semi-wide release kind of thing.

This was followed up by a couple of movies that I think were major cities only - so I have to drive to see them: DEAR DETECTIVE, a comedy cop movie that's part rom-com, and the sequel (title I do not remember) that takes the same two characters on a new case. And then he kind of disappeared from US cinemas. Still making movies in France, we just weren't getting them. He made some films a bit later that played art houses and I saw them, but he wasn't famous anymore.

The film I left out is the one that probably made him most famous - and the one I watched on DVD last night... KING OF HEARTS starring Alan Bates and, I think, Geneveive Bujold's first movie. It's an anti-war comedy, made in the late 60s with a British star... and kind of became an anti Viet Nam War film. Probably wasn't even intended as such. Has a strange history, because when it came out in the 60s, it flopped big time. Big time. It killed DeBroca's career... But a strange thing happened during the Viet Nam War, it started popping up in college area cinemas. And was one of those movies that was playing *somewhere* up until 1975 when the war ended. In fact, there was one cinema that played it non-stop for *over five years* until the Viet Nam War was over. First time I saw it was at the UC Theater in Berkeley... and it played *somewhere* in Berkeley through the 70s... and brought back DeBroca's career in the USA.

Story is a comedy that takes place in France in WW1. The German army has taken over a town in France, but when they see a larger group of British soldiers (actually Scottish - kilts are funnier) approaching, they decide to evacuate... but hide a booby trap bomb in the town that will explode at midnight and kill the Scottish soldiers and their commanders. The next day the Germans plan to return and re-take the town from any survivors.

Well, a French underground guy radios the Scottish army and tells them about this plan... but tells them about it in French. So things get lost in translation. And the bomb is set to go off at midnight... and the town has a beautiful ornate clock in town square where a mechanical knight in armor comes out to strike the midnight bell with his mace. This information really loses something in translation - nobody knows what it means.

So the Scottish send in a man to disarm the bomb before they occupy the town. Since none of the demolitions guys speak French, they send in Alan Bates - a communications officer. A geek. A non-heroic guy.

Once he finds the bombs, they will either send in a demo guy or have a demo guy talk Bates through disarming the explosives.

Well, the whole town evacuates because if the bomb.
And they leave the gates to the asylum open.
And the crazy people venture out, don clothes of the townspeople, and kind of have a looney-bin holiday.

And when Bates enters the town, well... the people are acting strange. And that's the set up. The rest of the movie compares the crazy people to the soldiers & the war... and guess which is crazier? And Bates has to figure out why the townspeople are strange, then figure out where the explosives are, then stop them from blowing up, then decide if this crazy-world is more sane than the war around it...

And he falls in love with Bujold in the process, and is crowned King of the crazy people.

The movie is charming. Not laugh outloud funny. What used to be called a "gentle comedy". It's kind of like going to the circus (hey, Bujold does tight-rope walking on power lines in a scene, and there are lions and bears!) - it's also a beautiful film... really well shot. Hard to tell if it holds up - since it's already a period film, it can't really be dated. But it's a gentle film... kind of the anti-Michael Bay. And it still charmed me.

The last film of his I saw was ON GUARD, which actually got a wide release a few years before DeBroca died. A THREE MUSKETEERS kind of thing filled with sword fights and action and romance... about a female sword fighter tracking down the villains who killer her father, and finding love along the way.

- Bill

TODAY'S SCRIPT TIP: Fast & The Furious *is* No Man’s Land *is* Point Break
Yesterday’s Dinner: Sausage pizza on honey wheat at CPK on Sunset.

Movies: Two Number Movies...

10,000 BC. - Completely silly movie... but much better than it needed to be. Some people are complaining that it’s not historically accurate... well, duh! The thing was made by Roland Emmerich, the guy who had aliens building the pyramids in STARGATE and time travelers zooming around from present day to pyramid time. He’s wacky! He mixes up time periods for fun. And here we get sabertooth tigers and Egyptian Pyramids and anything else Roland wants to put in the film. Story is kind of lifted from APOCALYPTO - a cave dude who is reluctant to lead has the girl he loves stolen by evil dudes - probably to be sacrificed - so he and his worst enemy and a village elder and some tag-along kid go to get her back. They manage to walk across the world, meeting all kinds of folks from all kinds of time periods - from African tribesmen to Egyptians to, well, an alien dude building pyramids (not Jaye Davidson - which would have been a cool in0joke and cameo). Here’s the thing about Roland - he knows how to make a cheesy movie. This film has some big emotional moments, and some amazing magical moments (the red birds) and lots of CGI spectacle stuff. And the film has a *scope* - Roland makes films for the big screen - he may not have the talent of David Lean, but he steals lots of shots from LAWRENCE OF ARABIA. When characters cross the desert, you get to see the whole damned desert! This film reminded me of a Conan movie or an Edgar Rice Burroughs novel. If you're in the mood for a big dumb epic adventure - it's okay. Just check your brain at the door.

21 - Based on a true story... which probably wasn’t as boring as this film. This thing seemed like the rough first draft of a script, complete with placeholders scenes, We start out with some tin-ear dialogue - awful OTN stuff. Story has whiter-than-white college kid at MIT who *dreams* of going to Harvard Med. That’s his motivation - he has this dream. He doesn’t want to be a doctor to help people or be a doctor to cure cancer or be a doctor to make lots of money... he just dreams of going to Harvard Med. He seems to have no goal after he graduates from Harvard Med. He has these two fake friends, who seem like place holders for characters to be created later. They are generic nerds, who have a generic science project.... and here’s the thing - they look completely different than our hero. He’s a handsome guy, they are chubby nerdy guys. So you *know* that he’s going to dump them and move up. Our hero works at a retail job in a clothing store... that is pure hell. Except, it’s not. We see him goofing off in the back room, and his job is dealing with upscale people buying upscale clothes. When I worked at Safeway Grocery, they would send me to other stores to fill in for people on vacation sometimes... and no matter how much seniority I had at my store, in the other stores I was the guy they gave the crap jobs to - and that usually meant cleaning the public restrooms, and *actual* crap job. I scrubbed toilets. That’s the kind of job you learn to dislike. That’s the kind of job that makes you say “Yes” when someone asks if you’d like to do something on the fringe of illegal. But he’s got a nice, clean job selling upscale suits. It’s a bland job.

For a moment, you think there may be some kinky twist when our hero seems to flirt with an older diner waitress - and he says he’s coming home with her.. But then we figure out she’s his mother. It was a bad way to introduce her... but after that, his relationship with his mom? Bland. She loves and supports him... no drama, nothing interesting - she’s kind of a generic, place holder character.

Kevin Spacey, who produced this film, plays the MIT professor who brings our hero onto his team of card counters who fly to Vegas on weekends to make lots of money. Our hero says he’s only interested in making enough to pay for Harvard Med, then he quits. The other members on the team are all place holders - they have no characters. Sure, one is a klepto, and one is a pretty boy and one likes to wear wigs... but none of these are *characters* - they are sketches. Kate Boswell plays the girl - and that’s pretty much what her role is. Our hero has the hots for her, and there are scenes where they talk for a moment and this is supposed to show the relationship progressing... and eventually she invites him to a comped room in Vegas, and you’re thinking - they have no relationship at all! We know *nothing* about her - in fact, we know so little about her that I thought for a while she might be Spacey’s daughter. They don’t have anything in common, other than they’re in the same movie and on the same card counting team, but why doesn’t she hook up with one of the other guys? Or Spacey? So our hero goes up to her room, and they kiss in front of a penthouse window overlooking Vegas.... but they have no conversation! They have no characters! Afterwards, they don’t act like slept together - they treat each other like strangers... which is pretty much how they treated each other before. It’s bland. No drama. No real characters. It’s a placeholder scene - an outline of a scene, but not the scene.

Also in Vegas, we have the place holder for a villain, played by Larry Fishburne... who seems like he belongs in some other movie - some 1950s mob flick. He’s a cliche leg breaker... but in modern Vegas. Completely out pf place! They keep trying to find ways to Scotch tape him into the story - but he seems like he stumbled in from other film. Since card counting is not illegal, just frowned upon, they needed some physical threat - and that’s Fish. He beats people up just for fun - because modern Vegas isn’t mobbed up anymore.

The film just goes through the motions, ticking off scenes until they reach the running time... but none of it adds up to anything. The characters seem like sketches, there is no drama, there is no actual conflict, and we don’t care. The film has no “juice” - we fell nothing at all. There is no suspense or mystery or romance or excitement or anything. One character says “In Vegas you can be anybody” - except none of these people live a fantasy life. Sure, they put on wigs or moustaches and go to strip clubs - but they don’t live any fantasy. They just play cards.

Eventually Spacey gets to say, “You know what I’m capable of!” as a threat... but we don’t know what he’s talking about, so it’s an empty threat - even a silly threat.

And they come to the end of the list of scenes and we get closing credits... but I didn’t feel anything. I didn’t care... and I didn’t really believe any of these people or events ever existed, even though it’s based on a true story.

Every scene of your screenplay, you should know - what do you want the audience to feel? And how are you making them feel that? If they aren’t feeling anything, they are just sitting there... wondering when the damned movie is going to be over.

Pages: Finished the script, delivered it... and had a meeting on another potential assignment. And this blog entry... and some other stuff.
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